Tuesday, January 15, 2008

...Are Here Again

Happy Days
Written by Samuel Beckett
National Theatre of Great Britain
Directed by Deborah Warner
Starring Fiona Shaw, Tim Potter

January 8—February 2, 2008
BAM Harvey Theatre
Brooklyn Academy of Music
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn

Fiona Shaw
(photo: Richard Termine)
Winnie—the heroine of Happy Days—is a survivor, as are most of Samuel Beckett’s characters. Waiting for Godot, Endgame and Krapp's Last Tape are peopled with protagonists who face their mortality with defiance, if not exactly unbridled optimism. And Winnie perfectly embodies Beckett’s theme: she is literally buried up to her waist (and, later, her neck) in a mound of dirt, but continues conversing about her life and her husband, Willie, who is mostly unseen while he lives in a hole nearby.

Beckett’s famously rigid plays have precise, lengthy, overdescriptive stage directions that are supposed to be as adhered to as strictly as Beckett’s dialogue. This may seem a straitjacket for directors, but it is, instead, in a sense, freeing: for there is so much going on in Beckett’s works among the words, the pauses and the directions that certain aspects can be emphasized over others.

For her production of Happy Days, director Deborah Warner has chosen to make everything, from the emotions to the physical setting, larger than life. In the form of the excellent Fiona Shaw, Warner gives us a Winnie who is buried in no mere mound: rather, we have what looks like the bombed-out remnants of a nuclear holocaust, thanks to an eye-popping set by Tom Pye. While trapped in this destroyed landscape, Winnie remains eternally cheerful and peppy, never giving in to her fate.

This is certainly a valid interpretation, and Warner and Shaw do wonders with Beckett’s very ambiguities, found among the pauses, the gestures, the very rhythms of Beckett’s dialogue and descriptions. In fact, they occasionally go too far in this direction: particularly in the first act, Shaw resorts to mugging far too much, doing everything but winking at the audience to indicate that Winnie may be literally earthbound, but she is not defeated–she will survive!!

Maybe she will, but we don’t need to be force-fed that fact. Part of Beckett’s brilliant achievement in Happy Days is that, while making us laugh along with this middle-aged woman stuck in her absurd situation, he also forces a lump in our collective throat that grows larger until his final, heartrending image of Winnie singing an old love song while her impotent old husband tries–unsuccessfully, it seems–to climb up the mound to be closer to her. Rarely has any playwright hit on such a powerful metaphor for the eternal paradox of mortality, presented in the endlessly adaptable form of a near-monologue for one character.

Shaw refrains from nudging the audience in the far more devastating second act, as she uses her eyes and minute tilting of her head to illuminate her portrait of a woman whose existence is measured by her memory of happy days past. As Willie—a tiny but far from inconsequential role—Tim Potter is pitch-perfect in his various grunts and monosyllabic utterances.

Jean Kalman's inventive lighting and Mel Mercier’s and Christopher Shutt’s sound designs complement this Beckettian “days in the life.” If only Warner had curbed two brief excesses—a too-obvious metaphorical burst of flame behind Winnie, as if an oil rig exploded, and an exceedingly frivolous use of the ‘70s sitcom Happy Days theme song at intermission (did the notoriously close-to-the-vest Beckett estate allow that?)—which, ultimately, do not betray Beckett’s original intentions.

originally posted on timessquare.com

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